The climate crisis is a classic example of a "collective action problem." These are problems that are enormous at the group level, but at the level of an individual can seem inconsequential. Taking action may even feel irrational to an individual. What does my one extra flight matter? How does it matter how the ingredients in my ice cream sundae were sourced? How does it change anything if I leave the lights on all night?
In other words: so what?
But these decisions do matter the moment you think about "scale." Millions of flights and billions of ice cream sundaes add up. Here I provide ground-level examples of how the climate crisis, a collective action problem, is already affecting millions of individuals in a tangible way.
First, the (Very) Big Picture
The impacts of climate change are far from abstract. There are extraordinary economic, social, and health costs to the damage we are inflicting on the planet.
For one, the rising intensity of natural disasters is and will continue to wreak havoc on households and businesses. By 2100, climate-related damages could cost the US economy $1.9 trillion per year. Some financial assets may simply become uninsurable, which, in our interconnected capitalist society, means they can no longer exist (think homes in coastal areas, for example).
But it's not just economic costs—climate change has incredibly high social and health costs as well. Of the 68.5 million refugees who lost or fled their homes in 2017, more than one-third are believed to have been displaced due to climate change. An estimated 143 million people will be displaced by climate-related factors by 2050. At the same time, an estimated 30 percent decrease in crop yield due to climate change could lead to significant food and water insecurity, spurring conflict over resources. Natural disasters and the increased mobility of tropical and water-borne diseases will contribute to at least 250,000 additional deaths each year between 2030 and 2050.
Human experience expressed through statistics can feel abstract and make us numb to suffering. I’ve chosen a few representative US examples of the ways in which humanity is beginning to face the real consequences of climate change. I could have picked any country and found equally compelling examples, but I wanted to show how the richest and most powerful nation in history is being affected.
I also hope these will show you how complex each situation is, and how difficult it is to boil the issues down to bullet points—which is one reason some of the bullet point "solutions" that are being discussed, to which we will come later, are not going to work.
Climate change in the United States: four examples
The little guy always gets screwed
I could pick a thousand other examples (and in future versions of this chapter, I might add examples from around the world). But hopefully this much should be clear: Miami, California, New York, and Texas may seem very different in the effects of the climate crisis, but their situations have two unifying themes:
- The climate crisis is already having massive, debilitating effects.
- All these consequences affect the poor far more than they do other groups.
Multiple books have been written on these topics, and many more will surely follow. But the story I am telling here is about behavior, so now let's make the link directly to how our own behavior is at the heart of the problem. Without that understanding, we can’t get to solutions.